Protopresbyter Alexander Schmemann

III. Some Reflections upon "A Case Study"

Notes and Comments

The Editor of the Quarterly asked me to write a brief response to Dr. Andrew Sopko's interesting and highly informative article. My knowledge of the Western rite as practiced in some Orthodox parishes being very limited, I must confine my remarks to a few general questions and more particularly to what, upon reading that article, I consider to be its essential flaws.

Dr. Sopko is pessimistic about the future of the Western rite parishes in America. To him, "the use of the Byzantine rite liturgy in some congregations by 1990 is a foregone conclusion." Not having his knowledge I obviously cannot judge whether his prophecy is justified or not. But where, in my opinion, he is wrong is in ascribing the responsibility for the forthcoming failure of the Orthodox Western rite to the Orthodox of the Byzantine rite, to their multisecular "psychological negativism" towards the West in general and the Western liturgy in particular, negativism rooted in their "ignorance of the West and its ways." It is this sweeping indictment that I wish to challenge here, not for any "apologetical" reasons, but because it obscures, I am sure, the real issues and places the entire debate on the Western rite in a wrong perspective.

Let me begin by stating that I do not deny the existence among the Eastern rite Orthodox of the "negativism" denounced by Dr. Sopko and which indeed is very often emotional and irrational. Nor would I minimize their "ignorance of the West," although Dr. Sopko's somewhat condescending remark deploring the absence among Orthodox theologians and scholars of "authorities on the West"(?) seems to reveal another — this time his own — ignorance. My point is simply this: however real and regrettable, these "realities" are not the decisive factors in the failure, one after another, of the various experimentations within the Orthodox Church with the Western rite.

The best proof of this is Dr. Sopko's study itself, although having chosen to make it into an "indictment" and a rather "emotional" one at that, of Byzantium and Byzantinism, Dr. Sopko seems to be totally unaware of his own contradictions. Indeed, if his "case study" proves anything, it proves that the difficulties encountered by the Western rite parishes are to be found not outside but inside, in the inner and, let me add, inescapable tensions which Dr. Sopko himself has in fact aptly described and analysed.

I term these tensions inescapable because, in the last analysis, they are rooted in a simple and equally inescapable fact: that the question of rites is precisely not, has never been, and cannot be, a mere question of rites per se, but is and has always been a question of faith, of its wholeness and integrity. The liturgy embodies and expresses the faith, or better to say, the experience of the Church, and is that experience's manifestation and communication. And, when rites, detached from this their nature and function, begin to be discussed in psychological terms of "acceptance" and "rejection," or "likes and dislikes," the debate concerning them becomes meaningless for de gustibus non est disputandurn . . .

To this simple truth Dr. Sopko seems to be almost totally blind. Thus he deplores, not without irony, the abandonment by St. Stephen's parish of the daily celebration of the Eucharist during Great Lent, celebration forbidden as everyone knows, not only in the Eastern rite but by an Ecumenical Council as well. For him this is "surrender," an example of the "hybridization" which he apparently considers to constitute the main liturgical evil. It obviously does not enter his mind that to question and to probe a difference of that magnitude — implying indeed two different understandings of the Eucharist, of its place in the life of the Church — is not only normal but precisely inescapable for people who, having embraced Orthodoxy, want their rite to be Orthodox, i.e. truly expressive of the Orthodox faith.

And he does not understand this because for him the Eastern and the Western rites are two entirely different and self-contained "blocks" ruling out, as an impure "hybridization," all contacts and mutual influences. This, however, is wrong, first of all — historically. He should know that in a sense the entire history of Christian worship can be termed a history of constant "hybridizations," if only this word is deprived of its "negative" connotations. Before their separation, the East and the West liturgically influenced one another for centuries. And there is no exaggeration in saying that the anaphora of St. John Chrysostom's liturgy is infinitely "closer" to the Roman anaphora of the same period than the service of Holy Communion in the Book of Common Prayer is to, for example, the Tridentine Mass.

Assuming the wrong idea of a fundamental Eastern versus Western liturgical dualism, Dr. Sopko is inescapably led to a wrong answer to the question, essential from the Orthodox point of view, of what makes a Western rite Orthodox? For him, as indeed for many proponents of the Western rite, all it takes is a few deletions and a few additions, e.g., "striking the filioque" and "strengthening of the epiclesis." This answer implies, on the one hand, that there exists a unified and homogeneous reality identifiable as the Western rite, and, on the other hand, that, except for two or three "heretical" ingredients or omissions, this rite is ipso facto Orthodox. Both presuppositions are wrong.

Indeed, one does not have to be an "authority on the West" in order to know that the liturgical development in the West was shaped to a degree unknown in the East, by the various theologies, the succession of which, as well as the clashes of which with one another, constitute the Western religious history. Scholasticism, Reformation, Counter-Reformation, etc., all have resulted in sometimes radical liturgical metamorphoses, all have had a decisive impact on worship. Therefore one should speak today not of the Western rite, but of Western rites, deeply, if not radically differing from one another, yet all reflecting, in one way or another, the Western theological tragedy and fragmentation. This does not mean that all these rites are "heretical" and are simply to be condemned. It only means that from an Orthodox point of view, their evaluation in terms merely of "deletions" and "additions" is, to say the least, inadequate and cannot resolve the tensions mentioned above. And even if in the past this method had a semblance of justification, the acute liturgical crisis that encompasses today virtually all Western confessions, makes it obsolete and irrelevant. For the irony of our present situation is that while some Western Christians come to Orthodoxy in order to salvage the rite they cherish (Book of Common Prayer, Tridentine Mass, etc.) from liturgical reforms they abhor, some of these reforms, at least in abstracto, are closer to the structures and the spirit of the early Western Rite and thus to the Orthodox liturgical tradition, than the later rites — those precisely that the Orthodox Church is supposed to "sanction" and to "adopt."

All this will probably appear as another example of Eastern "arrogance" and emotional anti-Westernism. I count on Dr. Sopko to help me dispel this unfortunate impression. In having honored me by attending my lectures, he certainly knows how critical I am of our own liturgical situation, how many defects and deviations I wish to see corrected in our liturgical life. It is true, however, that this criticism itself is rooted primarily in my deep conviction that the Eastern liturgical tradition is alone today in having preserved, in spite of all historical "deficiencies," the fullness of the Church's lex orandi and constitutes therefore the criterion for all liturgical "evaluations." Yet the true cleavage today is not between the "East" and the "West." It is between those who seek in the liturgy the essential food of their Christian life and those for whom it is a matter of "attachment" or "allergy." The Orthodox Church is full of people "allergic" to this or to that. Some are allergic to English and some to Church Slavonic. In some, liturgy is identified with Hellenism and for some others with Russia. And all these tensions which probably are also inevitable cannot and will not be solved except by an ever deepened interest — not in "liturgies" per se, not in "rites," but in the Orthodox faith these rites reveal and communicate. Whatever the future of the Western rite, it depends, I am sure, on the thirst and hunger for the fullness of the Orthodox faith and on nothing else. Dogmatically, ecclesiologically — and I said this some twenty years ago on these very pages — Orthodoxy has no objection to the Western Rite as such. To have such an objection would mean the loss by the Orthodox Church of her claims to universality. The question therefore is not whether a rite is Eastern or Western. Neither Easternism or Westernism are important in themselves. The only question is whether a rite adequately embodies, manifests and communicates the eternal and unchanging Truth, — is Orthodox in the deepest sense of this word.

And to this question, having adopted an approach which, in all sincerity I consider archaic, Dr. Sopko's article gives no answer.

Alexander Schmemann


St. Vladimir's Theological Quarterly Vol. 24, No. 4/1980, pp. 266-269